Leafs legend Johnny Bower recalls classy 'Mr.' Beliveau
Johnny Bower looks over some old hockey photos in his basement. (QMI Agency file photo)
“Look out Johnny, I’m right behind you!”
Having strayed out of his net to play a puck, Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower immediately knew there was only one opponent polite enough to issue such a warning.
It wasn’t Terrible Ted Lindsay, who would have steamrolled anyone or anything that stood between he and the puck.
Nor was it Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, who likely would have triumphantly stood over Bower for all to see after flattening the maskless goalie.
“It was Mr. Beliveau,” Bower said Wednesday, grinning ear to ear.
“It’s not too often you’d get someone like that say that to you. Ted Lindsay or someone like that, you’d have to be cautious because they’d come right at you. You’d have to balance yourself.
“Not Mr. Beliveau.”
After 90 years on this planet and countless games against Le Gros Bill, Johnny Bower stil refers to Beliveau as “Mister,” even after hearing the news that the Montreal Canadiens legend had passed away Tuesday.
For reporters such as yours truly who grew up hearing about the legend that is Jean Beliveau, calling the Canadiens great “Mister” is understandable. But for a fellow Hall of Famer to still use the term after all these years, well, hearing that from Bower certainly was unexpected.
“I called him Mr. Beliveau for a long time,” Bower explained. “Pretty much always. He was such a gentleman on and off the ice.”
True enough. After all, how many forecheckers give an unsuspecting goalie the heads-up that they are bearing down on him?
“Not many,” Bower said with a laugh. “And he kept the pucks down. A lot of times guys would shoot high at your head to try and scare you.”
It certainly was an effective tactic back in the days of the six team NHL, a time when goalies tried to avoid stopping whizzing pucks that were fired at face level instead of stopping them.
“Mr. Beliveau would never do that, though.”
Less than 24 hours after Beliveau’s passing, Bower is in relatively good spirits while spinning tales of his days facing the former Habs great.
On this dreary early December day, he has just finished his stint at a glistening downtown Toronto office tower participating in CIBC’s Miracle Day, joining the likes of Marshall Faulk, Andre Reed, Pinball Clemons and other prestigious athletes to help kids in need by aiding in the efforts to accrue funds for children’s charities.
Now, in a moment of reflection, a smile comes to his face at the thought that Beliveau has found peace. For the ageless Bower, there is satisfaction in the knowledge that his long-time classy foe no longer is in pain.
“I’m sorry to hear what happened to him,” Bower said. “But it’s probably a blessing in disguise. When you suffer as long as he has, well, in that position I’d rather go quickly and get it over with.
“He plugged away. He fought real hard. From what I understand they did everything they could for him. But there’s a time for everybody.”
According to the Canadiens, Béliveau will “lie in state” at the Bell Centre Sunday and Monday, allowing fans to express their condolences between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on both those days before his funeral Wednesday afternoon.
Fellow Habs great Maurice (Rocket) Richard was given a similar send-off when he died in 2000.
“We had some great battles because the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal were really intense,” Bower said. “Montreal had a powerhouse there with the Rocket and Mr. Beliveau.
“Mr. Beliveau was such an outstanding hockey player himself. A great playmaker who could pass the puck either way. And a gentleman not only on the ice but off the ice.
“We did card shows over the years and a lot of the times he would shake my hand and go: ‘Thank you for keeping me in the league, Johnny.’ I would start laughing.”
In the end, one pressing question remains: In their years of going up against each other, who came out on top the most?
“Well, he scored quite a few on me,” Bower chuckled. “OK, maybe not quite a few. But a few. But I got him a few times, too.
“I like to say it’s a tie.”
BELIVEAU THE GREATEST HE FACED, BOWER SAYS
The Rocket or Le Gros Bill?
Who was the greatest player former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower ever faced?
Bower admits that Jean Beliveau and Maurice Richard occupy the top two spots on his list. Asked in which order he would put them, the former goalie grappled with the dilemma for a few seconds.
“Mr. Beliveau was No. 1, Rocket No. 2,” Bower said Wednesday.
“The Rocket? He used to drive me up the wall, that guy. The Rocket would score a lot of goals. Look at his record.
“But Beliveau made the Rocket, in my opinion. Almost every time he could have scored a goal, Mr. Beliveau would pass the puck over here or over there. And I would have to follow it across. By the time I got there, it was in the net from the Rocket. He’d say, ‘Thanks Johnny.’
“They knew exactly what they were doing on the ice. They worked well together. They scared the daylights out of you.”
LEAFS LAST CUP CAME AT EXPENSE OF BELIVEAU'S HABS
When the Maple Leafs last had the opportunity to smear their fingerprints over the Stanley Cup, it came at the expense of Jean Beliveau’s Montreal Canadiens.
Sorry if the truth hurts, Leaf fans, but 1967 was a long time ago — 47 years and counting, to be exact.
In the end, the Leafs won hockey’s Holy Grail by disposing of Beliveau’s Habs in six games.
“I don’t know how it happened because Montreal had a powerhouse,” Johnny Bower said Wednesday. “In my era, they were really stacked, really strong. Toronto was really strong, too. They were an offensive hockey club whereas Toronto was more of a defensive hockey club. There was quite a difference. That’s the way they were taught to play. And in Toronto, they were taught to play defensive hockey down the line. The game has changed a lot. And you had to do the best that you possibly can.
“Maybe we just happened to outwork them in that series.”
— Mike Zeisberger